Meryl Streep, looking less glamorous than usual for Into the Woods.
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Stephen Sondheim: A life’s work in progress

On Stephen Sondheim’s 85th birthday, he will be revered as the genius of musical theatre. But his failures are just as fascinating as his successes.

Of all the tributes bestowed on Stephen Sondheim, the most revealing is the birthday concert. A composer-lyricist, Sondheim, who turns 85 in March, writes his songs within a context at once dramatic and musical. But in the events at the Royal Albert Hall and Lincoln Centre to mark his eightieth birthday, as in the revue shows Side By Side By Sondheim and Putting It Together, songs conceived as dramatic monologues or narrative set pieces, and studded with internal allusions and motifs, are wrenched from their setting and treated as “hits”. A faulty show can be reduced to a couple of ear-catching moments; a song that seemed wrong for the character – an accusation that Sondheim now levels at most of the lyrics in West Side Story – is free to show its virtues. This act of filleting is consistent with a wider process whereby Sondheim’s vices and off-days have been tippexed from the record, leaving only genius.

It’s a word that follows him around. In his 1997 book on musicals, Mark Steyn called the chapter about Sondheim “The Genius”, with the inverted commas left implicit. The opening chapter of the recently published Oxford Handbook of Sondheim Studies (OUP) talks bluntly of “Sondheim’s genius”. The rival views that a) Sondheim betrayed the musical – held by Steyn, John Lahr and others – and that b) he revolutionised it – shared by the contributors to the Oxford Handbook – is a suitable response to his mixed heritage. A boyhood apprenticeship to Oscar Hammerstein (the lyricist of Show Boat and Oklahoma!) was followed by training with Milton Babbitt, a disciple of Schoenberg and author of the notorious essay “Who Cares If You Listen?”, which advocated a retreat from the “social aspects of musical composition” into a world of “private performance”. Sondheim himself has no trouble finding overlap. He stresses that Babbitt – the composer in his own right of the 1946 musical Fabulous Voyage – would assign Hammerstein songs for analysis. And he reserves special affection for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s highly antisocial Allegro, an earnest morality tale with a Greek chorus, one of the few forerunners in the Broadway canon of his own “unlikely” musicals, among them Pacific Overtures (1976), a slice of geopolitical history set in 1850s Japan, Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979) and, greatest of all, Sunday in the Park with George (1984), about the composition and afterlife of Seurat’s painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

As with most acquired tastes, the alternative reaction tends towards allergy, with no room for what the impresario in Sondheim’s 1981 show Merrily We Roll Along calls “sort of in between”. What has been lost, in the Sondheim skirmishes, is a sense of proportion. To his admirers, overzealous in defence, Sondheim has become a writer of musicals that never – not for even a minute – repelled a thoughtful audience with ostentation in wordplay or desperation in rhyme, with underfed melodies or overworked parodies, with glibness or gloom. A reluctance to cheer equals a failure of discernment. If you’re not part of the ovation, you’re part of the problem. And so a composer-lyricist who dares to alienate and annoy is borne heavenwards on a wave of what Steyn called “popular unpopularity”.

In commercial terms, the take on Sondheim which mattered – playing no small part in securing the unpopularity – was that of the New York Times, whose critics Walter Kerr and Frank Rich covered Broadway during the period in which Sondheim wrote all of his important work: Company (1970), Follies (1971), Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd during Kerr’s tenure, Merrily We Roll AlongSunday in the Park with GeorgeInto the Woods (1986) and Assassins (1990) during Rich’s. Where Kerr panned show after show but declared Sondheim “the most sophisticated composer now working for the Broadway theatre”, Rich struck a more coherent balance, opening his first Sondheim review, of Merrily’s famously bad (and brief) initial run, with a crisp statement of what used to be a recognised yes-but position, before hero-worship washed it away: “. . . to be a Stephen Sondheim fan is to have one’s heart broken at regular intervals”. It may be true, as he wrote in a later article, that people were never “neutral” about Sondheim, but ambivalence, too, is increasingly off the menu.

The perception (strengthened by Rich’s stubborn insistence on holding him to his own standards) that Sondheim was unloved in his homeland was among the factors that led to his adoption over here. As Steyn put it, the American public made Lloyd Webber “a multi-gazillionaire” but the British establishment made Sondheim “an artist”. It was Sondheim, and not Lloyd Webber, who was the inaugural Cameron Mackintosh Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford, Sondheim who received his own Prom. (His next biographer is the former Independent journalist David Benedict.) In the Oxford Handbook – based on a university conference held almost a decade ago at Goldsmiths – the American-born, London-based critic Matt Wolf, after asserting that Sondheim has “always held unique pride of place in Britain”, points out that the subsidised London theatre liberated his work from “the commercial dictates that rule on Broadway”.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, revival after revival ensured a Sondheim boom at just the point that the new work dried up. While directors such as Declan Donnellan, Sam Mendes and Michael Grandage mounted productions of Sweeney ToddAssassinsCompany and Merrily, Sondheim busied himself with curatorial projects, tweaking old shows and working on two books of annotated lyrics – Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat – that offer a tour of his principles and methods (musical theatre’s counterpart to Henry James’s prefaces). His sole addition to the oeuvre in this period was a musical about the enterprising Mizner brothers – an architect and an entrepreneur who were well known in the 1920s – that first appeared, in Mendes’s 1999 workshop production, as Wise Guys, briefly became Gold! and then Bounce, before arriving in 2008 under the title Road Show at New York’s Public Theatre, where it was greeted as little more than a non-turkey. (Back in 2000, Sondheim was already saying it had consumed too much of his time.)

His current work-in-progress, altogether more promising, is a musical that merges two of Buñuel’s films, The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. (His Bergman adaptation, A Little Night Music, is one of his best-loved shows – and produced his best-known song, “Send in the Clowns”.) For the time being, though, his reputation continues to depend on revivals, including, over the coming months, such tributes as a concert performance of A Little Night Music at the Palace Theatre on 26 January and a ten-night ENO residency for the Lincoln Center’s Sweeney Todd, with Bryn Terfel in the title role and Emma Thompson as his pie-baking accomplice, Mrs Lovett. More significant is the West End transfer of Chichester’s celebrated production of Gypsy, one of three shows for which he wrote the lyrics but not music (the others being West Side Story and Do I Hear a Waltz?), opening at the Savoy a week after his birthday. Kicking off festivities a little early is the ongoing run of Assassins, staged in traverse by Jamie Lloyd, the director credited (by Sondheim, among others) with finally making sense of the problematic Passion (1994) in his 2010 Donmar Warehouse production. (Assassins, which runs until 7 March, is at the Menier Chocolate Factory, which has replaced the Donmar as Sondheim’s official London home.) There is also a long-awaited film of Into the Woods, his Grimm Brothers mash-up, directed by Rob Marshall, and starring Meryl Streep as the Witch responsible for bringing the hapless Baker (James Corden) into contact with the Wolf (yet another Johnny Depp moustache), Rapunzel and co.

Variations on a tone: Sondheim’s form as a composer and lyricist runs the gamut from turkey and cliché to sublime artistry. Photo: Piotr Redlinski/New York Times

One of the myths of Sondheim’s production history is that resourceful directors undo the wrongs of those who went before, shedding light on a show’s too-long-hidden glory. In reality, Sondheim’s shows have often been better served by directors than the other way round. In Maria Friedman’s 2012 Menier production of Merrily, the one weak link was the backwards-running narrative – a pair of disillusioned Broadway songwriters end up wide-eyed – which doesn’t refresh, merely reverses, a familiar trajectory, and doesn’t complicate, simply flips, the surface tone and meaning of half a dozen wonderful songs. Another standout revival, Tooting Arts Club’s production last year of Sweeney Todd – staged in a pie-and-mash shop and sung with clarity and gusto – managed to thrive despite that show’s blockish characters, pantomime-ish predictability and hectic final third.

Jamie Lloyd and Rob Marshall deserve similar praise for bringing conviction (Lloyd in Assassins) and charm (Marshall in Into the Woods) to shows that don’t hang together. Having abandoned irony and neatness in the open-hearted, free-form Sunday in the Park with George, Sondheim proceeded to write a pair of shows built around a gimmick-conceit – a fairy-tale musical! A political-murder musical! – and full of winky wit, lame wordplay (“If the end is right,/It justifies/The beans!”) and sweated-over punchline rhymes, as in the Wolf’s “There’s no possible way to describe what you feel/When you’re talking to your meal!”. Where Sunday uses a delicate musical counterpart to Seurat’s pointillism, the score to Into the Woods is all plinky placation, showing that, as one of the better songs (“I Know Things Now”) puts it, “Nice is different than good,” while Assassins offers a succession of formal parodies in place of a score that ramifies or accretes. (The parodies in Follies, better justified by its nostalgic story and theatrical setting, capture the forms’ original feeling as well as being clever at their expense.)

An aim of both these musicals is to solve the problem of what Sondheim calls “the monolithic chorus”, the musical-theatre convention whereby several characters seem to be expressing an improbable common aim. The opening and closing number of Assassins, “Everybody’s Got the Right” (“Everybody’s got the right to be happy”), sung by the whole cast, is designed as an anthem for the dispossessed – residents of an alternative America who can neither “be a scholar” nor “make a dollar”. The opening number of Into the Woods, “I Wish”, like the piece as a whole, works better partly because the characters are united by wishing without harbouring the same wish – and interrupt each other to that effect. The need to give Assassins a semblance of unity is evident in the idea of John Wilkes Booth as the muse of presidential assassins. Yet even this conceit doesn’t emerge until the final sequence, when Booth urges Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate American hope for good – which, given that we have already met characters with a fervent wish to kill later presidents, hardly stands up as a historical thesis.

But what is most disappointing about Sondheim’s later musicals is that, although they enable him to use song as a vehicle for drama and ideas, they inhibit his greatest gift as a songwriter, which is also his greatest contribution to the musical – the capture in writing of songs that evoke the moment of thought in movement. In the final song of Company, for instance, the Peter Pan-like central figure talks himself into accepting love, the grounds of his resistance (“Someone to need you too much./Someone to know you too well”) mutating into a plea: “Somebody, need me too much./Somebody, know me too well.” The opposite decision is rendered with equal sympathy in Sondheim’s most intricate monologue, “Finishing the Hat”. The title line, associative rather than grammatical, announces what the women in Georges Seurat’s life “have never understood” (“Finishing the hat/How you have to finish the hat”), setting off a long stream-of-consciousness sentence in which Georges weighs the urge to create against his desire for companionship. (The final line declares the winner: “Look, I made a hat/Where there never was a hat.”)

But whereas the historically cloudy Seurat could be built from Sondheim’s tailored sense of his character, Booth and Oswald and the ardent wishers who form a makeshift nuclear family in the woods are defined in terms of their actions – actions more or less fixed by the record and the Grimms. Motivation is mocked up after the fact. If these shows can nevertheless form the basis of a striking production and a diverting film, that is because Sondheim’s touch is never entirely absent. As with any great artist, the things that don’t work spring from the same sensibility as the ones that do, and serve to throw them into relief.

“Into the Woods” (PG) is on general release from 9 January

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.